VE: What exactly are voxels? I have heard a lot about them, but I never fully
understood the concept...
SM: True, honest to goodness "voxels" are to volume as pixels are to flat 2D
imagery. They're little uniform 3D cubes that represent space, often with color and
density. They're commonly used for medical imaging, where the true 3D representation of
density through a solid is important. Voxels in the true sense haven't really been used in
games (except for small sprites, sometimes using octree surface-voxel representations).
What NovaLogic popularized as "voxels" really aren't; they're simply a 2D height
field, where each grid coordinate has a color and a height value. They still represent
volume, but as an extension of a flat plane. The biggest advantages they have over true
voxels is their low memory requirement, and speed of rendering. The disadvantage is you
can't have caves or tunnels, but since they are rather rare in nature, a 2D height field
can adequately represent 99% of the terrain features found in the real world.
Software based voxel renderers commonly work a bit like texture mapping algorithms with
surface displacement, usually plotting pixels directly to a frame buffer without any
notion of polygons or other common 3D graphics primitives. This makes them difficult to
translate to hardware accelerated rendering (notice the lack of hardware support in Delta
Force), but it can be done with the appropriate algorithms to tessellate the height field
data into triangles for hardware to handle.
VE: Explain this ordeal on you getting kicked out of kindergarten? What did you do...
stick crayons up the other kids' butts or something?
SM: No, not quite. :) I wasn't bad, just different. After a couple of weeks, me and my
nutty parents (who hated getting up at 7:30 AM about as much as I did) decided we'd prefer
to go to school for just 2 or 3 days each week, but the school said all or nothing, so the
rest is history. I just like to say I was kicked out, it sounds more rebellious.
VE: Wow... what type of parents did you have? Were they "hippies" (And I mean
that in a nice way :)?
SM: Yes, I guess you could say they were hippies. :) And I don't think they've changed
much, seeing as they're part of the development team for Tread Marks.
VE: What was school like since you were home schooled?
SM: Very different. It wasn't even normal for home-schooling, really. Not many workbooks,
rote learning, or tests, but a lot of creative projects, playing, reading books,
discussions, educational TV, computers (some educational software, mostly fun stuff), and
video games. LOTS of video games. I think I knew I wanted to make my own games very early
on, and my parents did a lot of things to make that possibility easier.
VE: What are the advantages and disadvantages to having your own small development
SM: Compared to writing games on your own, there are things both ways. It's a lot easier
when you have someone else to do the things you're not that good at, and it's great to
have other people directly involved who you can brainstorm ideas with. On the other hand,
creating an entire game by yourself is something that all programmers should do at some
point. You gain a new perspective once you know the entire game creation process from the
inside, from graphics, to levels, to programming, to sound and music. I think it also
helps later when designing tools or interfaces for other artists to use, and when creating
placeholder art or models to test new features or ideas you have on your own.
VE: Do you find, then, that because you are the only programmer and you have few
artists that you must know how to use many of the art programs, on a somewhat basic level?
SM: Yes, I think so. I also have a different take on the programs; while I might not be as
creative in the art creation department, I do know a lot more technical tricks and
techniques for creating specific effects that I can help share with the others.
VE: Who should play Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider movie?
SM: Nell McAndrew, or Rhona Mitra. It's hard to decide.
VE: Any thoughts on the Aureal A3d API, or have you not received it yet?
SM: I've just read through the documentation so far. I like that it's a completely free
and totally inclusive 3D and 2D sound solution for Windows, and I also like that it has a
similar feel to OpenGL in regards to API construction. I'm planning to try switching to
A3D as the main Windows sound API for Tread Marks soon, assuming nothing goes wrong.
VE: What are your thoughts on adding weather effects, like snow and rain?
SM: A definite possibility. Weather conditions may be implemented as a subset of
"alternate versions" of some or all maps, with specific retexturing for snow,
mud, grassy, hot and dry, etc.
VE: Which 3D cards, if any, do you expect some problems with?
SM: I don't expect many problems with 3D cards, except for 3DFX. Aside from having washed
out colors (fixable with a load-time gamma adjustment, or the gamma ramp extension they're
implementing for Quake III) and no particles (a tougher problem, but solvable), the
current OpenGL situation is fuzzy at best. I intend to fully support 3DFX cards before
Tread Marks ships though, either through improved OpenGL drivers spurred on by Quake III,
inclusion of the Mesa 3D OpenGL clone, or as last resort, a Glide version of the rendering
VE: 3dfx doesn't support particles? Wow I always thought they did...
SM: I don't believe they support anything other than 3-point polygons in hardware (points
and lines are emulated with polygons), though I may be wrong(!). Their current public Beta
OpenGL ICD doesn't display points larger than 1 pixel, though hopefully that
bug/limitation will be fixed, as their MiniGL appears to display large points in Quake
VE: Why didn't you guys name your company something snazzy, like "Retarded Yak
Entertainment" or "Barrel of Dead Monkeys"? I mean Longbow Digital Arts
sounds so... military.
SM: Okay, so the name's a little boring. :) We initially wanted the name to be general
enough to cover 3D animated short videos (a couple of which we still have on the back
burner), games, and graphics tools, though we have been concentrating primarily on games
for the last while.
VE: No, the name isn't boring, I just love the "alive" ones like CaveDog,
Redstorm, and Raven :P But that's just me...
SM: Yeah, but those cool names are all taken. :]
VE: What do you like and hate most about the computer industry in general?
SM: I like the way the Internet is paving the way for small companies with good products
and ideas to jump into the big leagues on their own terms. By the same token I hate the
way so many _Internet_ based gaming sites mostly ignore small companies who are themselves
based on the Internet, and concentrate on the big retail shelf names (certain sites
excepted ). There are already enough print magazines to cover the big time end of gaming,
IMHO, and print mags can't decently cover the on-line end due to lag times.
VE: Hah... well I work over at PlanetQuake on a site as well... maybe we can start
SM: Hmm, sounds good. :)
VE: How is the proposed ladder ranking system going to work?
SM: We're still bashing out the details, but it will probably be something along the lines
of a 100-competitor ladder, each with a name, a skill, perhaps a favorite tank, and a
preferred driving style. You'll pick your starting rank (within limits), and then go up
against computer opponents from close to your level. If you wipe their asses, you'll gain
rank, if you get bitch slapped, you'll lose rank, and so on. The difficulty of the racing
will then be tailored to your specific skill level, to always give you a fun challenge.
There will probably be certain courses and weapons that you only have access to after a
certain rank, and there may also be bonuses awarded for marksmanship and driving skill.
VE: How many times do people mispronounce your name (Pronounced Shem-ess if I am not
SM: Normally, all the time. :) It was really weird being at the GDC though, since everyone
could pronounce my name! It helps that Seamus Blackley (note spelling) has been around for
a while first.
VE: Sorry, who is Seamus Blackley?
SM: Formerly of DreamWorks, he worked on the physics for Trespasser. Now he's at Microsoft
working on the Fahrenheit API.
VE: Since Tread Marks is your first "major" game, do you feel your design is
at all too ambitious?
SM: I'm pretty confident we can finish what we've set out to create. I've been careful to
not set my sights too stupidly high (seeing as we only have 4 people), so I think what we
want to do is manageable, and any extra we can pull off will be icing. The basic design
concepts have already been proven, so the task from this point on will be
"merely" fleshing the product out to its whole.
VE: How does the AI work? Does it "cheat" (I.E. knows all the turns
beforehand) or does it learn as it races?
SM: The AI doesn't "cheat", per se, but it does have a preferred driving line
plotted out on the map before hand that it generally tries to follow. I may try adding
some learning, or at least some extra heuristics, as at the moment a really good human
player can beat the AI in pure driving (ignoring weapons).
VE: What is the best way to implement that AI? Psuedo-neural net?
SM: I haven't dug into AI in a big way yet, so I can't be too specific. I'm leaning
towards finite or perhaps fuzzy state machines to give the computer tanks extra brains. I
may try some sort of learning AI, but the problem is that when the track changes shape
after a few hundred craters, the learned reactions may break down, and basic heuristics
would probably be needed.
VE: How will weapons work? Will tanks outfit multiple weapons BEFORE the race, or do
they pick up weapon "power ups" during the race?
SM: We're planning for a power-up system, since some of the weapons will be rather special
and would be silly if used more than once or twice. There may be ways to outfit tanks with
certain special weapon add-ons before the race though. We're just getting into that aspect
of design now, so I can't be too specific. (I hate design documents, can you tell? :)
VE: Don't you think design doc's could help you in the long run?
SM: That's debatable. If you're working on the next Half-Life, with a huge scripted plot
and relatively stable engine technology to build on, then of course a design document is
needed (and a big one at that) to have any sort of consistency throughout the game.
However I don't think a design document is important when you're building a game where the
levels themselves are less important than the way the game engine plays, and when the
engine underlying it all is being built at the same time. You wouldn't believe how quickly
the best laid ideas can be shown to be rubbish when actually tried out in the game, and
also how quickly new nifty ideas can spring forth. I wouldn't want to stifle the creative
process by plotting out a single direction and end-point that the game design must reach
before anything is tested. That said, we have put a lot of ideas on paper, and we've also
thrown out a lot of ideas and changed others. If we had written a design document way back
and stuck with it, Tread Marks would probably be a boring dune buggy racing game now.
VE: Stories in racing games...
SM: Never seen one that I thought added to the game. I don't think it's really needed, but
we might come up with some sort of explanation for battle tanks doing laps, at least.
VE: No! No! No! Screw the story, no one cares and it is just sad... in the manual go
"This is a tank racing game... there is no story, because it would be lame and cheap.
We know you don't care about the story, so instead of wasting time on one we made the game
SM: Thanks for the suggestion. :) I wonder what other people think?
VE: Predictions for the future of 3dfx?
SM: Not rosey, unless they come out with a 32-bit part that smokes the competition and the
quality of their OpenGL drivers suddenly takes off. We wouldn't have the cheap and
powerful 3D graphics accelerators we do now if it wasn't for 3DFX, but they're starting to
lag the rest of the industry.
VE: Where did you guys get the idea for a Tank racing sim? One to many re-runs of
America's most dangerous car chases?
SM: Don't watch those shows much. :) I'm not sure where the idea came from exactly, but it
was 100% original when we came up with it (I swear!). The game that is now Tread Marks
started life as a dune-buggy racing game (back with the software voxel renderer), but
there wasn't anything really inspiring about it. The terrain engine even then lended
itself perfectly to mutability, and in thinking of ways to leverage real time craters and
such, I suppose the idea of driving a vehicle with a rather large crater producing gun as
standard equipment seemed somehow logical.
VE: Do you see any draw backs to having such a wide area of movement? Am I going to get
lost and not be able to find my way back?
SM: I can't see any real drawbacks, except that if you're slow enough to get smacked in
the ass at the edge of a cliff you can have a long climb back up at times. There will be a
direction finder and a map, so getting lost shouldn't be a problem.
VE: Will the game be optimized for 3DNow! or KNI instructions?
SM: Probably not directly, but it will take full advantage of OpenGL drivers that are
optimized for SIMD. (Bug your driver writers, kids!)
VE: How will TM take advantage of today's hottest 3D accelerators? 32 bit color, large
texture sizes, maybe even S3TC?
SM: 32-bit will be a definite, though the game looks surprisingly good even in 16-bit on
most cards (3DFX has some alpha-blending image quality issues). Textures are being kept
reasonably small to facilitate operation on older 3D accelerators and for faster Internet
downloads of betas and demos. Most textures will be at least 256x256 though, at 16 or
32-bit. If I can get an S3 card to test on (hint, hint) I can add support for S3TC easily
VE: Boxers or Briefs?
SM: Both. (No, no, not at the same time!)
VE: Wow, the rebel wears underoos =) We though you might like to *ahem* free-ball :P
SM: Hah hah. I'm actually pretty normal and boring in some respects. ;)
VE: What do you think sets Tread Marks apart from other racing games?
SM: The totally destroyable terrain, and the weight of the vehicles. The maps can turn
into utter swiss cheese after a few laps, and it really adds another dimension to driving
and fighting. Special weapons such as the Nuke and the hill raising weapons will really
twist the possibilities beyond anything that has been seen before.
VE: Are the physics of Tread Marks based on real physics, or just what "felt"
right to you?
SM: The physics are "real" as far as gravity and scale are concerned, and the
general way objects collide and interact, but beyond that it's mostly aimed at providing
the best feel and play experience. In a game like this, 100% correctness shouldn't get in
the way of fun.
VE: Will it be possible to "die" in Tread Marks?
SM: Only in the Death Match modes, most likely. The closest you'll probably come to
"dying" in the racing mode is getting so totalled that your turret gets blown
off, leaving you weaponless.
VE: What about repairing then?
SM: Oh, of course. Probably through a combination of continuous auto-repair and power ups
to boost the rate or provide instant repairs.
VE: Favorite game you are currently playing...
SM: The only game I'm playing at the moment is Abe's Exodus, which is entertaining enough
to keep me coming back. My favorite gaming experience of late was playing all the way
VE: Will it be possible to make your own tracks when Tread Marks comes out?
SM: Definitely. Either the specs or the terrain editor itself should be released shortly
after Tread Marks goes gold.
VE: What other type of customizability will Tread Marks have?
SM: It will have a lot of higher-level customizability. By editing plain text files (and
supplying your own graphics and models where appropriate) you'll be able to tweak existing
tanks and weapons, create new tanks and weapons, new trees, new explosions, add new sound
effects, etc., without any programming. I'm not sure whether the source code that actually
makes the tanks and other entity classes tick will be released though. It would need a
C/C++ development environment to use, so would only be of interest to truly hard core
VE: Star Wars... does it make you sp00ge when you see the new trailers?
SM: They're cool. From what I've seen of the trailers, the story doesn't feel as grand as
that of the original, but we probably haven't seen anything close to the big picture. I'm
expecting to be happily blown away, as the master of Science Fiction space drama shows the
up-starts how to do it yet again.
VE: Why exactly is it so hard to create realistic trees? I have read in many interviews
that trees are extremely hard and challenging to make realistically. Why is this?
SM: The basic problem is that trees contain an astounding amount of complexity in a very
small space, and when using the real world as a model, you usually want an awful lot of
them packed into the same area. More specifically, fast 3D graphics is about
simplification and representation, and trees are very difficult to simplify. A car is easy
to simplify; you throw together a few boxes, maybe round some edges, and you have a shape
that looks very much like a car. A tree is difficult to simplify without making it look
less like a tree and more like an abstract sculpture, which is why most trees in 3D games
are either flat sprites (which are a super simplification in 3D geometry while retaining
detail in visual appearance, but with their own trade offs), or look like somebody's idea
of a wind chime. Often one or a combination of the above simplifications is enough to
produce a convincing result, but it will be a while before there is enough 3D performance
to do trees "correctly" in a general sense.
Lots of thanks go out to Seumas McNally for letting me interview his stank-ass and to Dave 'Octane' Morrison for contributing some
questions (Dave is out backup web-chump here at VE =) If you haven't already checked it
out, go and read me preview of Tread Marks I
wrote a few weeks back. I got my grubby hands on a pre-alpha copy and it was damn cool :)